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NASA Funds UVM Research for Nanosatellites

Illustration of clusters or swarms of small satellites performing coordinated activities in spaceNanosatellites are next-generation miniaturized spacecraft about the size of beach balls. Unlike conventional satellites, which may weigh tons, these spacecraft tip the scales at 20 pounds or less and require unique propulsion and guidance control systems. In September, Professor Darren Hitt and a research team of UVM engineers received a $750,000 grant from NASA to advance the development of this technology.

Partnering with engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, MD) and NASA's Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, OH), Hitt's team of researchers are designing and microfabricating miniaturized propulsion systems onto silicon chips to generate thrust for the control and positioning of these small satellites. The thrust levels required are extremely small — roughly equal to the weight of a few grains of rice. Hitt's team is close to finalizing the thruster's design and hope to produce a working prototype in three to four years.

The computer simulations below illustrate two aspects of the miniaturization process.


Transient supersonic flow
through a micronozzle


"Slugs" of propellant fuels in microchannels

Nanosatellites are being developed by NASA as part of a future vision for the use of "constellations of small satellites" to enable a variety of new mission capabilities. Among these capabilities is distributed, space-based sensing and observation. "[With nanosatellites,] suddenly you have a bunch of eyes in the sky," Hitt explains. "If some fail, there are plenty more to fill in and carry on the mission."

CEMS Professor William D. Lakin, project director for the Vermont NASA EPSCoR program and director of the Vermont Space Grant Consortium (VTSGC), is the principal investigator of the award. Co-investigators on the research team include Professors Walter Varhue, George Pinder and Dryver Huston from the CEMS School of Engineering.